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The big picture of a Cantonese Opera

Cantonese opera performances comprise of various kinds of performing arts, such as dancing, acrobats, singing, martial arts, mime etc. How we apply them into a Cantonese opera affects the overall impression of the show to the audience. Below are three traits, namely Integrity, Virtuality and Procedures which underpin Cantonese opera performances. Let’s take a brief look at these three traits.

Traits: “Integrity”, “Virtuality” and “Procedures”.

1. Integrity:

Traditional Cantonese opera is a “highly integrated” art which covers “folk song and dance”, “farce” and “talking-singing arts”. During its historical evolution, it has successfully absorbed other arts, including literature, poetry, music, folk song/dance, acrobatics, magic and martial arts. Traditional Chinese opera integrate these elements into one production and produce performances featuring a combination of these that are suitable to the storyline.

Actress dancing with rainbow coloured ribbonActress dancing with rainbow coloured ribbons

Actress simulating a horse riding action on stageActress simulating the action of riding a horse on stage

2. Virtuality

“Virtuality” is another trait of traditional Cantonese opera. This trait refers to the idea that although life may offer infinite possibilities, the performance stage has its own boundaries. Hence, the traditional Cantonese opera adopts “transformation” to help bridge the gap between the acting and the audiences’ imagination. For example, the action of opening/closing a door, riding a horse or dismounting a horse and so on, involves no actual door or horse on stage. These only exist in the imagination of the audience through the performers’ actions and performance.

Actor is simulating the action of rowing a boat with a young ladySimulation is similar to mime acting in some ways

3. Procedures:

Aesthetic sense is important to Cantonese opera performances. Even if a scene is about every life matters, performers would re-enact these with enhanced, and over-exaggerated approaches and techniques. Some motions can be presented as beautifully and visually as a rhythmic dance.

Performance procedures of traditional Chinese opera can be narrowed down to singing, speaking, acting and acrobatic fighting.

  • Singing: Dramatic and musical singing style and tunes.
  • Speaking: Dramatic and musical monologues.
  • Acting: Performing the virtual body language through dances.
  • Acrobatic fighting: Presenting the scene of dancing and fighting at a certain rhythm.

The procedures namely, singing, speaking, acting and acrobatic fighting can be referred to as the Four Skills and Five Movements of Cantonese Opera.

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This article is from the free online course:

Cantonese Opera: from Backstage to the Stage

The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts